While I was in Chicago recently for the CAA conference, I did a few studio visits. Paying a call to Wesley Kimler’s studio is invariably notable given its mammoth scale, reptiles, parrots and oversized paintings. Kimler is known for his iconoclastic view of the artworld and his paintings are frequently exhibited, although recently rarely in commercial galleries. One large painting had just come back from an exhibit in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
THE ARTIST’S STUDIO. PHOTO BY MARK STAFF BRANDL
Noted Chicago artists’ advocate and critic, former gallerist Paul Klein has often stated that what distinguishes Chicago’s artists, with their disparate aesthetics, is their singular work ethic. I invited Paul to come along because I respect this perspective of his and wanted his input in a discussion with Kimler.
Located in an industrial corridor of Chicago, his studio contains a wealth of paintings underway, many 15 feet high and 27 feet wide. The Doctor Came at Dawn is one such mammoth oil on canvas at 9 by 27 feet. It is also one of the few still in his possession of a series from four years ago. Right of center upon its luminous teal color-field background perches a characteristic Kimler biomorphic pour of thick, sagging black paint. One of the horn-like peaks rising from this blob resolves itself into an image of a conspicuously Napoleonic medical doctor’s head, depicted with a virtuosic array of painterly markmaking. This is a transitional work which initiated the recent series of paintings on the theme of the Pacific theater of World War II. Many of these poignant works, such as Five Sisters, suggest to me a Jacques-Louis David painted by Velázquez and De Kooning in tandem. If you couldn’t tell, that’s a compliment.
MARK STAFF BRANDL: On Sharkforum.org, the group blog website you founded, where you are known for being very critical of the art world, you recently argued for a differentiation between paintings and art-objects that just happen to be made of paint. What do you mean by that premise?
WESLEY KIMLER: The difference is between an actual painting, where a thought process happens, where things change, where you are engaging a developing work of art, letting it talk back to you. Compare that to a neo-Dadaesque object that happens to be some paint on canvas, where the art lies in the single idea generating the object. No interaction. This is what a lot of so-called painting is today. What you, Mark, have referred to as “Feeble Painting.”
PAUL KLEIN: Wesley, speaking of this, most people who make art call themselves artists. Rarely do you do so. You refer to yourself by and large as a painter. Why?
KIMLER: For a long time I called myself a painter, because I hate the art world.
KLEIN: Why is the act of painting so important to you as an artist, as opposed to other media?
KIMLER: The whole thing about painting is the relationship between what happens as we create something in reality: we respond to it as we do so. The methodology of painting, and the thinking process within it, grows more complex as the piece builds.
KLEIN: There are, I think, two kinds of painters. It can be seen in the relationship to titles. If the title exists before the work of art, then it probably is a diagram fulfilling a demonstrative point of view that the artist espouses. If the title has been reached while creating the work, or afterwards, there is a sense of discovery and a whole different purpose. Do you have a deciphering process, where you slowly realize what the work is about?
KIMLER: My paintings refer to the age we live in, the one we just lived through, Modernism, and have various types of figuration and imagery. Right now this has a lot to do with death and war. Is it possible to offer some sort of literal translation of these visual elements, such as a title? No. They are paintings in the sense that High Modernism saw this question.
BRANDL: Nevertheless, they are the opposite of High Modernist reductivism, They are about far more than surface, aren’t they?
KIMLER: There are the elements of them that are about paint, abstraction, and physicality. And then there are the elements that are about war, the various kinds of imagery of war. These are, however, intertwined. I am also painting images of war because painting itself is, for me, very warlike, very confrontational, difficult, harrowing—even a tortuous experience. I’ve eaten up a big chunk of my life trying to figure out what I do and how to do it correctly.
KLEIN: How much does the war imagery have to do with Iraq and recent war?
KIMLER: Only abstractly. I realized that the last war we really had to fight was World War II. I also discovered in my research just how ambivalent about the war so many people were who fought it, and yet how heroic they were, when they had to be. My favorite battle, which I have painted a number of times, is the Battle of Peleliu. The work I had recently in the MCA Chicago was Umurbrogol, which is the name of the mountain ridge on the island. A lot of people died there and the battle had next to no strategic importance. Nevertheless, the bravery of the people who fought it is something art hasn’t been made about. Painters used to paint about such events, then Modernism came and Pollock and de Kooning wanted painting to be and contain much much more, to come out farther into the world. Then Greenbergian formalism came and painting became less and less… In a way, my work is revisionist. The lessons of High Modernism are attractive ideas that have never been used beyond their first abstract embodiments, used within imagery, exploiting and talking in the language of physical paint, let’s say, about contemporary thought, especially about painting. It is something promising that never happened.
BRANDL: Some people place your painting as within Neo-Expressionism, where I don’t believe you fit. What do you think?
KIMLER: That whole idea was out there when I started to get going in my art career, but I was always more concerned with paint-handling and manipulating plastic media than those people were.
BRANDL: You were looking more at de Kooning than Kirchner or Picasso, as those artists were.
KIMLER: To use a term now soon to disappear, I think my paintings are truly Post-Modern, after Modernism, in several senses.
KLEIN: Why is that?
KIMLER: Because they use anything and everything I feel like referring to, within a varied yet capable use of media. Yes, I have a vital dialogue with painting from the past and the present. But, as the years have gone by, as I have progressed as a painter, all the “-isms,” all the ideas people had about where I should go, have all fallen by the wayside. Today the best way to encounter my work is to look at it. Besides that, the best way to describe it is to notice that I do something very particular to me. I do what I am good at, what I am interested in and I challenge myself. I am doing what I desire. I am a painter.